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It’s time for a new narrative about Greater Minnesota

Forget the story of decline that we’ve been told since the 1950s,” says U of M sociologist Ben Winchester.

First of two articles

The McKnight Foundation commissioned writer and consultant Jay Walljasper to do a series of reports looking at the prospects and challenges in Minnesota’s 80 counties outside the metro area. This is the first of two articles drawn from his latest report, “North By Northwest: Rural Resilience in Northwest and North Central Minnesota.” [PDF] His earlier report on southeast Minnesota is available here and northeast Minnesota here.) North central and northwest Minnesota are defined here as the corner of the state west of a line from St. Cloud to Warroad, and north of I-94 or Minnesota Highway 27 west of Alexandria.

There’s a sharp difference of opinion about the desirability of northwest and north central Minnesota as a place to live.

In National Geographic magazine a few years back, Garrison Keillor described feeling as if he has “come into paradise” when driving into this corner of Minnesota, the setting of his fictional town of Lake Wobegon.

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But in summer 2015, Washington Post blogger Christopher Ingraham painted a starkly different picture for the paper’s website, noting that the worst places to live in America, in terms of scenery, are “clustered around the Minnesota/North Dakota border region.”

“The absolute worst place to live in America,” he continued, “is Red Lake County, Minnesota.”

Ingraham had never been to Red Lake County, or anywhere near it. He was merely quoting the 1999 Natural Amenities Index created by the US Department of Agriculture, which rated the “natural aspects of attractiveness” of every county in the country based on climate, topography, and access to bodies of water.

Reactions to Ingraham’s blog post from the North Star State came fast and furious. “I had never been disagreed with so much,” Ingraham reported. “And so politely.”

Along with numerous refutations of Ingraham’s research came an offer to visit the Red Lake County from Jason Brumwell, whose family runs Voyageur’s View Campground and Tubing on the Red Lake River. Soon Ingraham was on the ground in Minnesota — kayaking, touring farms, visiting a shooting range, eating fried walleye and talking with friendly folks in Main Street taverns, including a local banker who had come home for a less frantic life after eight years on Wall Street.

“It sure didn’t seem like the worst place in America,” he confessed “or one lacking in natural amenities, or natural beauty, either.”

The civic spirit of Red Lake County particularly impressed him. “Over and over, the folks I spoke with told me it was that sense of community that kept them there.”

This spring, Ingraham, 34, announced that he and his wife, Briana, and their 2-year-old twins were moving to Red Lake County, where he will continue to work for the Post via Internet. Ingraham’s dramatic change of heart, which drew headlines around the country, dispels the widespread belief that rural Minnesota holds little appeal as a place to live for anyone not born there. Upon closer inspection, as he found out, small town life offers many qualities, from high civic involvement to affordable housing.

Rural Minnesota’s ‘brain gain’

Ingraham expresses wonder that he’s moving to rural Minnesota, but University of Minnesota Extension sociologist Ben Winchester is not at all surprised.

For years Winchester has been documenting what he calls rural Minnesota’s “brain gain”— a spike in people ages 30 to 50 moving from suburbs and big cities to small towns.

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“A lot of these people coming into our rural communities are arriving with high levels of education, with earning power, with experience, and with children,” he explains. At a recent Fergus Falls Business Summit, for instance, a third of the attendees reported they had moved to the area between the ages of 30 and 50.

This partly compensates for the well-publicized “brain drain” of 18- to 25-year-olds who leave small towns for college and to start careers. “We need to write a new narrative about our rural communities, not the story of decline that we’ve been told since the 1950s,” stresses Winchester, who lived in rural Hancock for many years and now lives in St. Cloud (for his wife’s job).  

Winchester notes that the population of rural Minnesota is not dwindling — it has grown by 11 percent since 1970. Minnesota’s urban population has risen by 66 percent over the same period, although some of that growth comes from the recent reclassification of Blue Earth and Nicollet Counties (the Mankato-St. Peter area) from rural to urban, and other rural counties being incorporated into the Twin Cities, Rochester, Duluth, St. Cloud, Fargo and LaCrosse metro areas.

He points to four leading reasons for this unexpected migration: 1) slower pace of life 2) greater sense of security and safety 3) lower cost of living, and 4) better access to outdoor recreation. And for the roughly half of brain-gain newcomers who move with children, smaller schools often factor into their decision.

The broad reach of the Internet is fueling this trend as urban professionals like Ingraham can bring their jobs with them to a small town. The lack of high-speed broadband connections needed by entrepreneurs and telecommuters, however, remains a problem in some parts of rural Minnesota.

Technology has also reduced the lag time for new cultural currents to hit rural communities. “There’s much less difference between rural life and city life now,” Winchester says. “Small towns are much more socially diverse. Not everyone is going to belong to the Eagles Club anymore. Many are now involved in outdoor recreation groups like canoeing associations.”

Winchester spots a couple of demographic shifts on the horizon that may accelerate the brain gain. “One of the biggest opportunities we’ve had to reinvigorate rural Minnesota in 120 years is the large number of baby boomers that are retiring and looking to sell their homes in the coming years” — opening more housing options in small towns. “And the millennials are just turning 30,” Winchester adds. “Let’s see what happens with them.”

Park Rapids: Small-town comforts with big-city options

Big ambitions are afoot in Park Rapids (pop. 3,700), where the Upper Mississippi Center for the Arts will occupy the historic National Guard Armory thanks to $2.5 million in bonding from the state Legislature.

The plans call for the armory to become a community gathering spot with art classes, music lessons, lifelong-learning programs, meetings, events, receptions, concerts, and summer productions of the Northern Light Opera Company, whose staging of “West Side Story” sold out all eight performances in 2015.

People who vacation in Park Rapids feel very invested in the community, even when they’re back home.

Arts proponents like Cynthia Jones, president of the Downtown Business Association, say public events can bring the whole community together — year-round residents and summer people, low-income families who live in town and wealthier ones who live on lakes, kids and parents and grandparents. “Everyone comes out for the outdoor music concerts we do downtown Thursday evenings in the summer,” she notes. “They all bring their lawn chairs.”

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Despite the presence of a Walmart Supercenter on the outskirts, Park Rapids’ Main Avenue — with businesses ranging from a Ben Franklin store to the Bella Caffé — is a lively social hub stretching four blocks.

One of Main Avenue’s anchors is The Good Life Café, a homey spot that splits the difference between a small-town diner and a gastropub. Co-owner Molly Luther, 34, grew up in town and moved back home after seven years in Boston at a software firm. “They let me telecommute from Park Rapids,” she explains. “I knew that if I wanted to live here I’d have to bring my own job — or create one myself,” which she eventually did in starting the café with her sister and husband.

“When you leave, you really appreciate what a small town offers,” Luther adds. “Yet I feel small towns should also have the same kind of options as living in Boston or Minneapolis.” That’s part of her mission with the café, which features local craft beers, inventive cocktails, walleye tacos, and gouda-bacon mac-and-cheese.

In vacation destinations like Park Rapids, the brain gain extends beyond the 30- to 50-year-old set. “Seasonal, occasional, and recreational residents have traditionally provided a strong customer base for local businesses and organizations, and may become increasingly important to communities as these part-time residents transition to become permanent residents,” notes a 2015 report from the University of Minnesota Extension. This is already true in Park Rapids.

Cynthia Jones, who owns RiverBend Home Expressions, a furnishings and accessories store, moved from Kansas City with her husband, Ellis, after many years of summering in Park Rapids. Paul Dove, founder of the Northern Light Opera Company, moved from Evansville, Indiana, with his wife, Pat. John Rasmussen, current president of the Park Rapids Rotary Club, moved from Omaha with his wife, Christie.

People who vacation in Park Rapids feel very invested in the community, even when they’re back home. “We’ve got a webcam looking out on Main Street,” Jones says, “and if it goes down, we soon hear about it from people across the country.”

White Earth: Recovering land, culture, and hope

Traveling through Becker County in early autumn — blue prairie skies with splotches of red and orange appearing in the trees — Robert Shimek, executive director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), looks out at a pasture golden-lit by afternoon sun and says, “This land is lonesome for buffalo.”

“That’s where I want to put in a buffalo herd,” he adds. “I wouldn’t have thought that 20 years ago. Well, yes I did, but I wouldn’t have talked about it.”

His organization seeks to get back some of the land that belongs to the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) Nation according to the 1867 treaty with the United States.

“We’ve bought 1,400 acres,” says Shimek, which WELRP uses to help White Earth Reservation residents sustain livelihoods by hunting, fishing, trapping, logging, wild rice gathering, maple sugar harvesting, berry picking, and other traditional practices.

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“We want to get at the 45 percent unemployment around here by adding a little more certainty, cash income, and opportunity to people’s lives,” he emphasizes. “Poverty is our overriding challenge.”

The group operates out of an old elementary school in Callaway, just north of Detroit Lakes, on the White Earth Reservation. The school also houses NiijiiRadio (KKWE 88.9 FM, whose motto is “Independent Radio for an Independent Nation”) and Native Harvest, the business arm of WELRP that sells native foods and crafts such as wild rice, maple syrup, buffalo sausage and birch-bark baskets.

They run a multitude of projects — ranging from community gardens that feed schoolchildren and families to seed libraries preserving indigenous crops and medicines to wild rice and maple sugar harvest events in which centuries-old skills are handed down to the next generation.

WELRP also speaks out to protect wild rice from genetic modification and the proposed Enbridge Sandpiper crude oil pipeline, which Shimek notes “goes through the heart of wild rice country in Minnesota.” 

St. Cloud: Take another look

It’s commonly assumed that Minnesota’s population growth all occurs in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. In reality, the rest of the state continues to experience modest growth, with some places on par with the metro area, including St. Cloud. The City of St. Cloud saw 11.3 percent growth between 2000 and 2012, and the St. Cloud metropolitan region (encompassing Stearns and Benton counties) grew even faster than the Twin Cities at 20.7 percent.

Another misconception is that St. Cloud is overwhelmingly white and, according to some, not friendly to those who aren’t. “There are 44 languages spoken in the school district,” answers Don Hickman, vice president for Community and Economic Development at the Initiative Foundation, which serves Central Minnesota. Approximately 10,000 Somalis, along with immigrants from other African countries, and 5,000 Latinos live in and around St. Cloud, he notes. While several unfortunate incidents have been widely publicized, he says that the community as a whole sees immigrants as a great asset in a global society and economy.

“With so many aging baby boomers, our region’s workforce needs newcomers,” Hickman says.

A robust economy, along with the presence of 35,000 students at St. Cloud State University, Saint John’s University, College of Saint Benedict, and St. Cloud Technical and Community College, explains the rise in both population and diversity. The Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation, a collaborative of more than 100 regional business and community leaders founded in 2011, is focusing on six key goals to keep the economy humming: business development, talent attraction and retention, workplace well-being, innovation, transportation and downtown vitality.

Another surprise in St. Cloud for folks who haven’t visited recently is downtown, which has welcomed 24 new businesses since mid-2014, accounting for $9 million in investment, according to Pegg Gustafson of the St. Cloud Downtown Council. Nearly every storefront in the heart of town on St. Germain Street is open for business: boutiques, a halal butcher shop, Herberger’s department store, a children’s theater, coffee shop, art gallery, used book store, the Paramount Theatre for performances, gift and housewares stores, a game shop, plus bars and restaurants to meet virtually anyone’s taste.

Like Minneapolis, St. Paul, and other cities across the country, St. Cloud is rediscovering its riverfront as a strategic recreational and cultural asset. Bike and walking trails parallel the Mississippi on both sides; parks and superb floral gardens line much of the east bank, and a new boardwalk and walk bridge following the west bank near downtown is set to open in summer 2016.